When Habitual Reactions Harm
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | September 2016 (edited July 3, 2022)
Feelings flow, igniting habitual action. We can slow the process and intervene when habitual responses harm.
He watches football all day, she sulks; he silently glares, she shouts; he insults, she slams the door. Recognizing emotional patterns provides an opportunity to intervene, extinguishing the unproductive with purposeful action. We can interrupt damaging cycles. With skillful planning, we activate our wise mind to manage the difficult, inviting promising futures from the ashes of the destruction.
Emotions are dumbfounding; logical to a point, but sometimes identifying the cause leaves us grasping for straws in the stacks of complexity. The blurred cause of feelings (whether excited or depressed) leans upon conceptual explanations, evaluating environments, experiences and socially expected responses. We assign meaning, causes, and rightness—a subjective practice.
Upon entering a new relationship, a young friend remarked, “I just want to run to the mountains and scream.” She never successfully navigated the attachment cycle—attraction, romance, commitment, vulnerability. Therefore, new opportunities spiked fear. She didn’t know how to act. Her past failures created increased anxiety.
Sometimes, our patterned responses are destructive; we yell at the person we love, steal from the company employing us, or eat foods that depress. Why do we self-sabotage?
See Self Sabotage for more on this topic
Emotional Patterns are the reoccurring cycle of intense emotions that motivate behavior. If we can identify the pattern, we can modify destructive responses.
Emotions and Learning
We learn to identify dangers and opportunities through experience; our minds leap or shrink, primed to act depending on the coloring of the past. These connections are highly subjective, igniting reactive responses whether the response is appropriate for current trigger or not.
Anger, sadness, shame and guilt erupt, signaling importance. Sometimes these emotions appropriately point to approaching danger. The event triggering the emotion rightfully deserves attention and action, responding to the emotion is important for our safety, security and acceptance; other times the blaring warning of emotion is askew; there is no danger. We need to explore the emotion for wisdom, not blindly obey the impulse to act.
Emotional reactions do not always lead to an appropriate response. In the heat of passion, many promising lives have been destroyed.
The Power of Reflection
The wise learn to pause, and objectively examine the absurdities. Only through mindful awareness can we restore productive behaviors by challenging misguided motivations, examining if an action is conducive to goals. Often, without mindful observation, even dramatic and destructive patterns are missed, excused and repeated.
Feelings come quickly, serve their warning and depart; our thinking often exasperates and delays the process. Our thoughts give feeling deeper meaning, turning the small trickle of feeling into a catastrophic explosion of emotion. Once identified, we can change the narrative.
Non-judgmental, compassionate examination can identify harmful emotional patterns.
Changing Harmful Emotional Patterns
Changing patterned reaction is difficult. They are automatic and often unrecognized. The event, the feelings, the thoughts, and eventual emotions effortlessly flow. Recognition of unhealthy patterns always precedes successful intervention. Our mind lost in habit quickly explains, mitigates and absolves reoccurring transgressions. Somewhere change must be made or the troublesome patterns will continue.
We can learn to new patterns. Our brains are capable of significant changes. We can disrupt past habits with new ones. We can find peace where we use to suffer. Anxieties can melt and confidence take hold. There is hope. There is help.
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